How the universe began...
How the universe began... pidjoe/gettyimages.com

The first big physics story of the year is not hard to understand if its two sides are appreciated. There is a particle called a muon, which is related to the electron but is much bigger and is highly unstable. The muon almost immediately (in human terms) decays into others of its kind, called leptons (a electron and two neutrinos).

That is one side of the story. The other is the Standard Model (SM) of particle physics. Physicists don't like this model so much because, though it works better than others, it is not mathematically beautiful or anywhere near complete. It is baggy, yet, among other successes, it did accurately necessitate the existence of the Higgs' Boson (which, regrettably, is famously called the God Particle—more on that in a moment) a half century before its confirmation in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN.

There has not been much action in physics since this confirmation, and CERN has failed to find a whole bunch of new particles predicted by competing and more elegant models of nature's constituents. This, I think, is the source of the excitement around the muon's misbehavior.

The thing to understand is that recent muon measurements have shown, with some regularity (but not enough to make it a done deal), that its magnetic behavior is not consistent with that computed by the Standard Model.

Under a very specific condition, the muon wobbles more than it should—that's what some experiments are saying. In the SM, the wobbling occurs in a certain way because it factors in the interactions with known particles. But if the muon does not wobble in this certain way, then the implication is that other, unknown particles are at work at a fundamental level. And the SM appears to be ignorant of these other particles wobbling the muon weirdly. In this ignorance is the hope that these unknown particles—constitutive or force-carrying—will dynamite the foundations of the SM.

So, the important thing to keep in mind in all of this is that, if the discrepancy is real, then physicists can push past the SM and, for the first time since the 1970s (the decade that closed the silver age of state-sponsored physics), make a real run for their money in a new frontier. This is the cultural interpretation that I think explains the muon hoopla.

The NYT report, by Dennis Overbye, offers no cultural background, and so the issue sounds more complicated than it should. It's headline also includes this mystifying line: "Evidence is mounting that a tiny subatomic particle is being influenced by forms of matter and energy that are not yet known to science but which may nevertheless affect the nature and evolution of the universe."

There is a before and an after for the word "but." Before is physics and after is metaphysics. There is nothing at all wrong with the latter, but physics, in the three of its four major forms (general relativity, quantum mechanics, Standard Model), does not have the means to explain or even predict anything like "evolution," which can only happen in/with time, a mode of experience whose essence is not quantifiable because, unlike a muon, an actual thing, no instrument can detect it, can see it, can smell it, can taste it.

Indeed, one of the founders, Robert Hooke, of the modern (mechanical) moment in physics (17th century-19th century) keenly hoped memory was an “organ” that could sense time:

[There is yet] wanting a Sense to apprehend Time. . . . Considering this, I say, we shall find a Necessity of supposing some other Organ to apprehend the Impression that is made by Time. And this I conceive to be no other than that which we generally call Memory, which
Memory I suppose to be as much an Organ, as the Eye, Ear, or Nose, and to have its Situation somewhere near the
Place where the Nerves from the other Senses concur and meet
If time were like wind-blown molecules or sounds in the air or packets of light from our star, then ever-inventive evolution would have hit upon a nose for it.

But time exists. We are experiencing it at this very moment. People come into time all of the time and leave time all of the time. That is called life and death. But in all of the big three of physics, time does not exist in the way it is normally felt and understood. There is no locked past, happening present, open future. There is only the measurement of time, t, a quantifiable something that can go backward and forward with no problem.

As the Austrian-born American physicist, Fritjof Capra, put it:

The relativistic theory of particle interactions shows thus a complete symmetry with regard to the direction of time...This, then, is the full meaning of space-time in relativistic physics. Space and time are fully equivalent...To get the right feeling for the relativistic world of particles, we must "forget the lapse of time."

Time is the great shame of the physics world. It too easily opens the door to others who are thinking about God, philosophically or religiously.

Time is either forced to behave like a respectable dimension of space (general relativity), or not to exist at all (in the region of the very small). The SM claims to be the deepest conception humans have of reality, but there is no time in it, and therefore it's more lifeless than a corpse.

The strangest thing about modern physics is the very absence of its creators. Everything here only spins, or leaps, or bounces, or smudges, decays, refracts, vanishes, pops in and out of vacuums. Nothing lives, or says: Let There Be Life. There nothing god-like about the God-particle. There is no evolution will be found behind the muon, which does, however, play an important the machinery of our star the sub. And those who hate time, the only door to biology, only seem to want to make things more lifeless by finding a model that is even more systematical, elegant, polished than the baggy SM.

But if all we want is symmetry, then how can we speak of evolution or of a history of the universe? We must instead see this universe as dead, or as uninteresting as that pre-party dinner table imagined by the great physicist Abdus Salam.

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Before the dinner party begins, there is a circular table with a salad dish (or glass of water) on either side of a plate. Before the guests sit, the salad dishes are symmetrical. A person can pick one from the left or one from the right—it does not matter at that point. But when the first one (salad dish/glass of water) is picked, say the left one, then the left comes into existence and symmetry is broken. The party begins, the plates, bowls, spoons, glasses become more and more disordered.

If someone comes to the party late (let's say this person is called Humankind), they will not try to figure out the original order but rather the way things are going at that messy moment. The glass to the right is free. The salad bowl to the left is free. No one is sitting on this or that chair.

Almost all of the physicists of humankind want us to believe that the truth is not in arriving late but only in the total remembering of the nothingness, the timelessness, the lifelessness of the unbroken dinner table.